Questions & Answers

Interview with Bevin Alexander by

Recently, a noted military strategist and historian wrote regarding the Middle East, "We have entered into a period of great uncertainty and much disputation." That writer is Bevin Alexander, our honored guest. What is not an uncertainty is Mr. Alexander's sensible grasp of the subject of war and war strategy. His How Wars are Won: The 13 Rules of War book remains a favorite among members. And disputation is healthy, because as a counterpoint to our Martin van Creveld interview in October, Bevin Alexander's brilliant discourse balances and adds value to the continuing debate on the war in Iraq.

A graduate of The Citadel and Northwestern University ( Evanston, Illinois), Bevin Alexander is the author of nine books on military history, including How Wars Are Won, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, and his latest book How America Got It Right. During the Korean War, he was commander of the 5th Historical Detachment, and received three battle stars for service in the combat zone, 1951-1952. He also received the Commendation Medal for his work as a combat historian.

Mr. Alexander was an adviser to the Rand Corporation for a recent study on future warfare and a participant in a recent war game simulation run by the Training and Doctrine Command of the U.S. Army. His battle studies on the Korean War, written during his decorated service as a combat historian, are stored in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He was formerly on the president’s staff as director of information at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., and is currently an adjunct professor at Longwood University, in Farmville, Virginia.

You will find, as we did, that Bevin Alexander's over 50 years of experience, research, and analyses in warfare help to illuminate how we must approach the current situation in the Middle East. Every educated person will benefit by listening to what he has to say. Your expertise is in military strategy. In layman’s language, what exactly is “strategy” to you, and how does it relate to warfare?

Alexander: Strategy is primarily the art of the general, and refers most appropriately to the plan behind a whole campaign or war. The word is drawn from the Greek strategos, which means general. Tactics, on the other hand refers to the methods for winning victories on the battlefield or in close combat.

The purpose of military strategy is to diminish the possibility of resistance. The great general eliminates or reduces resistance by movement and surprise. As Sun Tzu recommends to the successful general: “March swiftly to places where he is not expected.” Likewise, the great English strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart says the goal of the great captain is the same as that of Paris in the Trojan War of Greek legend 3,000 years ago. Paris avoided any obvious target on the foremost Greek champion, Achilles, but instead directed his arrow at Achilles’only vulnerable spot, his heel.

<< Back to top When was the first time you heard about Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? What attracted you to the book?

Alexander: I cannot say precisely when Sun Tzu began to dominate my thinking about military strategy. I, like most Western theorists, was steeped in the writings of the nineteenth-century Prussian general, Karl von Clausewitz. But I was deeply dissatisfied with Clausewitz from my earliest exposure to him, because he contradicted himself. On the one hand he said that war is the continuation of national policy by other means. On the other hand he emphasized battle. He wrote “the bloody solution, destruction of enemy forces, is the firstborn son of war,” and “let us not hear of generals who conquer without bloodshed.” Yet the purpose of war is not battle at all. It is a more perfect peace. No nation goes to war to fight. It goes to war to attain its national purpose. It may be that a nation must destroy the enemy’s army to achieve this purpose. But the destruction is not the end, it is only the incidental by-product or the means to the end.

Although I had read fragments of Sun Tzu’s teachings previously, it was not until I was researching the successful strategy of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong that I found Samuel B. Griffith’s wonderful translation of The Art of War, published in 1963. In this translation I found that Sun Tzu clarified the inchoate opposition to direct warfare that had been building in me from my first exposure to combat. This exposure occurred when I arrived in Korea in June 1951 as a second lieutenant, just turned 23 years of age. I watched at close range the frontal assault on Bloody Ridge in eastern Korea that began in August 1951. And even as an inexperienced young officer, I knew before it started that the headlong attack into prepared North Korean defenses that the 8th Army commander, James A. Van Fleet, had ordered was wrong and would succeed only after appalling casualties. So you might say that my devotion to Sun Tzu was the outgrowth of my great disappointment with the generalship I saw being practiced in Korea.

<< Back to top Of your many works, our readers are probably most familiar with How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War, a book you published in 2002. Some of the chapters, such as “Uproar East, Attack West” and “Holding One Place, Striking Another,” you expounded important rules that came straight from Sun Tzu -- because we believe they are rules pertaining to human behavior. What do you think makes his Art of War as relevant today as it did 2500 years ago?

Alexander: Because Sun Tzu shows with absolute clarity that the way to succeed in warfare (as well as in all human endeavors) is to avoid confrontation, which will generate maximum opposition, and to seek indirect solutions.

This concept is expressed by Sun Tzu in what I consider to be the most profound sentence ever written about warfare: “The way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak.” It’s doubtful whether the great Confederate leader Stonewall Jackson knew of Sun Tzu. But he embodied Sun Tzu’s thinking precisely in one of the greatest theoretical indirect plans ever offered in warfare.

In April 1862, George B. McClellan’s huge Union army was threatening Richmond from the east, while Irwin McDowell’s large corps was threatening the city from Fredericksburg on the north. Meanwhile Nathaniel B. Banks’s Union army was at Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley and John C. Frémont’s Union army was at Franklin in the Alleghenies, aiming at Staunton south of Harrisonburg. Jackson proposed that he march his small army to Sperryville, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, and from there move north either on Front Royal and Winchester, or on Warrenton, only 25 miles from Centreville and Manassas, the main Federal defensive positions protecting Washington. By marching along a single line, Jackson—with threats only and against no opposition—would immobilize all the forces opposing him (except Frémont’s): the Washington garrison, McDowell at Fredericksburg, and Banks at Harrisonburg, whose supplies came by way of the Manassas Gap Railroad, passing through Front Royal, and by way of Winchester, served by a railway from Harpers Ferry.

Having stopped all three Union forces, Jackson anticipated that he could continue directly north (between Front Royal and Warrenton) to Leesburg, cross the Potomac River at White’s Ford, and threaten Washington from the north by cutting off its rail connections (and therefore food supply). This danger would force Abraham Lincoln to order McClellan’s army back to defend the capital, thus ending the threat to Richmond without the loss of a single Confederate soldier.

Jackson did not carry out this plan because Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military aide, Robert E. Lee, refused to release 5,000 men to join Edward Johnson who was protecting Staunton. Jackson could not allow the chance that Frémont might seize this valley town, severing Richmond’s connection with the valley and beyond, vital for food and supplies. Yet if Jackson had received these 5,000 men, he could have won the Civil War in the space of weeks. With Washington’s food supply cut off, Lincoln and his administration would have been compelled to flee the capital well before McClellan could have gotten his army to Maryland to confront Jackson. It’s doubtful whether McClellan could have beaten Jackson in a stand-up fight. So it’s likely the North would have been compelled to come to terms.

<< Back to top Speaking of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson , you wrote about him in your book, How Great Generals Win. Do you think the South would have won—despite many factors against it—if he remained alive?

Alexander: I am now engaged in a book project whose premise is precisely that—the South could have won the war if it had followed the strategy proposed (numerous times) by Stonewall Jackson and rejected by President Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The South possessed an authentic military genius in Jackson (it also possessed one in Nathan Bedford Forrest, but Forrest was so far down on the social totem pole that he had no chance of rising to senior command, especially in the west, where Confederate leadership was dreadful).

Jackson saw the problems facing commanders in the Civil War and came up with solutions. In this he was unlike any other commander on either side, except Forrest (on the limited scale by which he was tested), and except William Tecumseh Sherman, who was a late bloomer, but who won the Civil War in 1864 after he adopted precisely Jackson’s strategy---defeating Joseph E. Johnston by going around him time after time, inducing John Bell Hood to cripple the Rebel army in hopeless frontal attacks, and, with few Confederates left to oppose him, capturing Atlanta and driving to the sea at Savannah.

Jackson’s greatest proposal was to place a Confederate army north of Washington, cutting off the capital’s supply lines to the North. When President Davis refused to accept Jackson’s strategy because he did not want to invade the North, Jackson came up with another way to win the war. Jackson had learned that direct attacks were almost certain to fail against the Minié-ball rifle (with a range four times that of the old smoothbore musket). He therefore wanted to force the Union army to attack the Confederate army, knowing it would be beaten. He could do this by sweeping around the Union army and pressing it against a river or mountains and forcing it to fight or die, or by seizing a railroad junction in the Union rear, cutting off supplies, and forcing the enemy to attack. He proposed this four times to Lee and four times Lee refused or responded too late for the plan to be effective.

One of these times was in August 1862 when Jackson descended on the rear of John Pope’s army at Manassas Junction. This put Jackson’s corps astride the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, severing Pope’s supply line. Jackson’s position at Manassas also threatened Washington directly. This obliged Pope to abandon his strong defensive position along the Rappahannock River to the south. But instead of remaining exposed at Manassas (between Pope advancing from the south and the large Union garrison at Washington), Jackson moved eight miles west, took up a position at Groveton, just northeast of Gainesville and just north of Thoroughfare Gap, through which Lee was approaching. In this defensive position, Jackson challenged Pope. The positive elements to Pope were overwhelming. Not knowing that Lee was approaching on Jackson’s due south, Pope believed Jackson had retreated from Manassas in panic, and was cowering in a position from which he could not escape. Pope did not realize that Jackson was inviting an attack. Jackson had set up the conditions for the utter destruction of Pope’s army. Only the failure of Lee to move quickly prevented this, and allowed Pope’s army to get away.

<< Back to top You served in the Korean War and wrote your first book about it. While we are in a “what if” mode, would we have been better off with Douglas MacArthur still in command? What rules did he break or did well in?

Alexander: As I say in my book on the Korean War, MacArthur was a Jekyll and Hyde as a military commander. His plan to invade Inchon and cut the North Korean supply line at Seoul was masterful (despite the opposition of the unimaginative Joint Chiefs of Staff). But MacArthur developed no plans on what to do after the North Korean army was defeated.

When the decision was made to invade North Korea, MacArthur’s plans to accomplish the task were abysmal. He withdrew 10th Corps, the only fresh force he possessed (8th Army coming up from the Pusan Perimeter battles was exhausted) to send it by ship to Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea. This took so much time that the South Koreans walked into Wonsan before 10th Corps even got into their ships. When the actual invasion started, MacArthur divided his forces, with 8th Army on the west and 10th Corps east of the huge Taebaek mountain spine. Neither force could come to the aid of the other if need arose. In the final stages of the advance, MacArthur divided his forces into numerous small rapier thrusts, which could be (and were) cut off or destroyed because they had no support on either side.

Finally, MacArthur destroyed a plan by President Truman to offer the Chinese a cease-fire in March 1951. MacArthur, without any notice to Washington, issued what amounted to an ultimatum, threatening U.S. attacks directly into China. Truman now was unable to offer a cease-fire. It was this act of treachery that caused Truman to relieve MacArthur in April 1951. In my opinion, MacArthur should have been relieved as soon as he came up with his terrible plans to invade North Korea. This, of course, was impossible, because his success in the Inchon invasion had elevated him in the minds of many back home into an infallible military genius. But MacArthur’s behavior was unacceptable after the Chinese intervention, when he pushed hard for direct attacks against China, when it was in the interests of the United States to keep the war confined to the Korean peninsula (and the Soviet Union neutral). So, on balance, MacArthur was great at Inchon and atrocious after Inchon.

<< Back to top Do you subscribe to the belief that a great military leader with the right attributes will always succeed, regardless of the time and environment? Or do you believe that military leaders with niche attributes are only great in a particular time and environment? In other words, do the greats naturally rise to the top regardless, or do they depend upon being in the right place at the right time?

Alexander: I’m afraid I subscribe in substantial degree to the lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751): “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air....Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.”

I think great military leaders are the sum of native brilliance and opportunity. Without one there cannot be the other. If Napoleon Bonaparte had been born a dozen years previously, he would most probably have become a revolutionary in his native Corsica, not a French officer. Genoa ceded Corsica to France in 1768, the year before he was born, giving him the opportunity, as a low-ranking noble, to be educated at the French king’s expense.

Another such, Pierre de Bourcet (1700-80), was a brilliant general—he conceived a “plan with branches” in which an army, by aiming at multiple targets, forces the enemy to divide his forces, thus making the enemy unable to defend all. In France’s ancien régime, however, Bourcet always played second fiddle. Thus, at Rossbach in Saxony in 1757, the French commander, the Prince of Soubise, ignored Bourcet’s excellent advice, and suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of Frederick the Great.

Having said this, I also believe that much latent talent comes to fruition when the opportunity arises. For example, Adolf Hitler sent Erwin Rommel to Libya in 1941, not to win a great victory over the British, but to keep Benito Mussolini in the war. Rommel, an officer who had been handed the fortuitous chance to show his brilliance, came close to winning the war in the desert with ridiculously few troops and tanks. Yet chance plays an immense role in all this. In some wars no great general arises, with disastrous consequences. In the American Revolution, every British general was incompetent or ineffective. On the western front in World War I, neither side produced a great general—and millions of young men died.

<< Back to top Your most recent book, How America Got It Right, sets the record straight about critics’ charge of American imperialism. Please tell us more about the book and why you decided to write it.

Alexander: I had been struck in recent years by claims, primarily from extreme liberals, that the United States is becoming an imperial power with avaricious lust for more wealth and more power, and also that America has always exhibited base ideals and disrespect for the underprivileged. Evidence they cited was overwhelming American military power and political dominance in the international arena and a history of evil at home, most notably slavery and oppression of Native Americans. While it’s true we supported slavery and we drove the Native Americans into the territories at first and finally into reservations, Americans have always supported freedom and equality. We drove the Native Americans away because they could not adapt to our form of Western Civilization. We had a huge blind spot about slavery. This is the single worst stain on the American fabric. But we at last realized it was wrong, and have made earnest efforts to overcome its effects.

I decided to write a short history of the United States to explain that American ideals, American dreams, and American accomplishments far surpassed these two blots. I show that Americans resolved early in our colonial history to create the greatest, freest, and most prosperous nation ever to arise on earth. We spent the first century and a quarter of our independent existence in creating this great nation. But to protect this treasure, we found we needed to establish the world’s paramount military structure and become the world’s preeminent political power.

Our aim was never to create an empire. Instead we insisted on one people, one society, and one nation. When we got the opportunity in 1803 to buy all of Louisiana from Napoleon, the American negotiators in Paris, James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston, promised as a matter of course to incorporate the 15,000 Spanish and French inhabitants of Louisiana into the Union with all the rights of existing citizens. Here in the first instance of American expansion, the idea was accepted as a given that the United States was to consist of a single people, a single nation, and equal rights for all.

We made similar right decisions in the vast majority of cases throughout our history, choosing democracy over plutocracy, equality over privilege, liberty over oppression, and the prosperity of the many over the greed of the few. We have not always been consistent. For a while early in our history we listened to Alexander Hamilton, who tried to sacrifice the interests of ordinary people to the avarice of the wealth. We allowed our blindness about slavery to throw us into a bitter fraternal conflict. We withdrew into isolationism between the two world wars and allowed dictators to attack innocent peoples. We fought against what we thought was the spread of Communism in Vietnam when we were actually taking sides in a civil war. We have made other mistakes. But our lapses have been infrequent and our intentions have almost always been good.

Today the United States is the only country that will actually go out into the world and strike down evil. We have every reason to be proud of our nation, and every reason to ignore complaints about our motivations and our ideals.

<< Back to top For the most part, we agree with How America Got It Right. The fight for freedom, prosperity, and overall protection of our American ideals was indeed justified in the past—from the Revolutionary War to the Balkans. But good leadership in the past does not guarantee good leadership in the present or future (as you have pointed out, e.g., slavery). The real debate is with the current war in Iraq. Most Americans would agree that taking Saddam Hussein out of power was the right thing to do. However, we think the timing was extremely poor, especially since (a) there was never any imminent danger of terrorism coming from Iraq, (b) the mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice was and still is incomplete; Al Qaeda was and still is by far a more immediate threat, (c) America arguably did not have the support of the world community proper, which cost us financially and in human lives, and (d) there lacked a viable plan for post-occupation in Iraq. Now we are involved in an expensive and prolonged war, something that Sun Tzu warned us about. Would you mind sharing with our readers your thoughts regarding the above issues?

Alexander: I believe we made the right decision to go into Iraq. Not just because it was a horrible dictatorship, but because Iraq’s oil wealth presented an unacceptable chance that Saddam Hussein would aid terrorists to get at the United States and Israel. This made him too dangerous to remain in power. Another reason was expressed by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. He said we went into Iraq “quite simply, to frighten any state that might in the future be harboring terrorists. It’s like the parking signs that Mayor [Ed] Koch used to put up around New York. Remember those? ‘Don’t even think of parking here.’ Don’t even think of harboring terrorists.”

I am not impressed with any argument that we must seek the support of other nations in order to protect American lives and safety. The history of Europe in Bosnia, for example, is a history of shame and refusal to stop the genocide of the Bosnian people being perpetrated by the Serbs. We cannot depend upon other nations to do anything. I believe we are winning the battle against terrorists. I think the monstrous killings of innocent men, women, and children on the streets and in the mosques of Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are alienating all the peoples of the Middle East, and are undermining not only al Qaeda’s legitimacy but the entire structure of the terrorist movement. Iraq is showing the world that the terrorists have nothing to offer but oppression and murder.

Also, I don’t think the war in Iraq has limited the fight against terrorists elsewhere. Would we be doing more in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden if we had not gone into Iraq? I don’t think so. We have about 18,000 troops in Afghanistan right now, all that our generals say are needed. After the attacks in Madrid and London and after the murder of Theo van Gogh in Holland by an Islamic extremist, European governments are realizing that they are also targets and must do everything they can to root out terrorist cells. Our presence in Iraq has, if anything, increased awareness of the threat inside Europe.

I agree, however, that we did not have a plan for the post-occupation of Iraq. As I say in my book, Vietnam confirmed an ancient axiom of war: any state attacked by a more powerful state will always move to guerrilla warfare, since it can hide its soldiers among the people, whereas an invading state cannot hide its soldiers. The Bush administration ignored this plain lesson from Vietnam, and we went in unprepared for the guerrilla outbreak that met us in Iraq. This failure to anticipate and plan for an entirely predictable development represents the most damaging error on the part of the intelligence community and the military.

However, whether we prepared for an insurgency or not, we cannot win a guerrilla or partisan war. So long as guerrillas have strong leadership and the backing of at least a significant portion of the nation’s population, they cannot be beaten. As Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, said during the Vietnam War, “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” Guerrilla or partisan warfare is the only way an enemy can neutralize America’s vast technical supremacy to some degree. Partisans can do this by striking only at isolated American or allied elements---roadside bombs, rocket or machine-gun attacks, mortar rounds quickly dropped on a target---then disappearing into the population. This tactic becomes all the more inescapable when zealots are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to hurt us.

The strategic lesson we should take from all this is to realize that an enemy who refuses to confront us openly, and who hides among his own people is unstoppable by forces coming from the outside. Most of the insurgents in Iraq today are minority Sunni Arabs who want to reestablish the control over the country they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein. We are facing a naked contest for power between the Sunnis on one side and the majority Kurds and Shiites on the other. The terrorists under Zarqawi are trying to foment a war between the main ethnic groups in Iraq in hopes of allowing the Islamic fundamentalists to establish a repressive theocratic dictatorship. That’s not going to happen because the terrorists are alienating the vast majority of Iraqis with their killings. Besides, the terrorists are not calling the shots. Sunni militants are in charge of the insurrection. The war in Iraq, therefore, has ceased to be primarily a terrorist war waged against the West, and is beginning to resemble a civil war between factions.

We should get out as quickly as we can—and this is in fact taking place. The answer is to withdraw American forces by stages from Iraq and to relocate U.S. air power and Special Ops forces in Kuwait and in a couple of the Persian Gulf states. These forces would not be subject to the attacks they now face in Iraq and would be on 24-hour call to assist the Iraqi government in the event it runs into an insurgent attack it cannot handle alone. Accordingly, President Bush is correct in emphasizing that the way to end the insurgency and bring peace is the creation of effective Iraqi military and police forces. These forces will ultimately develop enough expertise and discipline to root out the fundamentalists and the insurgents and they will ultimately end the reign of terror. But it’s going to take time. And like many such insurgencies in the past, it’s not going to end with a bang, but a whimper.

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